In the late 1960s Andy Pettif called himself a hippie and lived with six other men and women in a large house on Park Road NW.
"It was scandalous then," he said last week. "My co-workers were older men and they thought I had it made with some sort of free-swinging group."
Now Pettif is 46 and he still lives in a group house. "No one thinks twice about it," he said.
Communal living in the '60s was often a political statement, a way to flaunt contempt for middle-class values and traditional living arrangments. Now group housing is common, in part because it is a relatively cheap way to live. These days, the communal life may be an economic statement.
"Ten or 15 years ago a coed group house was probably a commune," said Betsy Neal, founder of Roommates Preferred, which has been operating for 10 years. "Rents were low and people could afford to live in single apartments. The people who chose to live in group houses did so for ideological reasons."
Now, all kinds of people seek such arrangements, according to owners of roommate matching services.
The latest Census Bureau figures show that 26 percent of Washington's households are made up of people who are not married and not related--a 93 percent increase over the last decade.
"The growth in group houses has been amazing, no -- phenomenal," Neal said. "I used to have all young women who wanted to live in Georgetown, period. Now I have their newly divorced parents who are lonely, or on tight budgets, and they're setting up houses all over: Adams-Morgan, Dupont Circle, Virginia and Maryland."
Neal and others in the business say the number of people seeking group housing has grown especially quickly in the last two months.
"We usually hit a peak in September, then slack off," said Susan Fales of Sharing Inc. "This year we hit a high in September and kept on going. I can't believe the number of calls we're getting this month; I can't even say how many there are."
Group house members say their living arrangements can be fun and cheap, or they can be dispiriting. Stories of theft, slovenly habits, inconsideration and people leaving rent unpaid are common.
But for Pettif, the experiences in group living have been mostly positive. When Pettif, who moved to Washington in the mid-'60s to study for a graduate degree at American University, first moved into a commune in the 1800 block of Park Road NW, he said the commune was a lively place where friends of friends drifted in and out and everyone shared the same philosophy. They worked together in the anti-war movement and also on the Washington Area Free University.
"There wasn't a lot of structure because there were no models of how to live that way," said Pettif. Later, when he became dissatisfied with the way the house was run, he started another group house on Connecticut Avenue. It was less of a commune and more of a communal living arrangement: "We were getting more set in our ways."
For the past seven years, Pettif has rented out two rooms in another house, one he bought in Adams-Morgan.
"We never need a house meeting because most people are used to communal living," he said. "They know to clean up their dishes and let people know when they're gone for a week. It's not so much an ideology that brings people to this living arrangement. It's economic necessity or simple choice."
Francine Dionne, 27, thought about both money and friends 2 1/2 years ago when she arrived in Washington and decided to share a house in Georgetown with two other women.
"I like living in a house because of the room and the yard," she said. "I couldn't afford a house on my own and this way I get the house for less than it would cost to rent an apartment."
Dionne, who grew up with seven brothers and sisters in Maine, also likes the security. "It's just nice to know if I don't come home for three days someone will be worried," she said.
Most people who call referral services seem to be white, young and single, owners say. They move from one house to another. "It's a great way to meet people," said Joleen Hoover, 24, who lives with four people in Logan Circle. "You just keep getting introduced to new circles of people."
In this network of group houses in Washington, Neal is a common link. "I've gone to house parties where everyone there knew who she was," said Ann Bruton, who shares a group house in Georgetown.
It is also profitable.
Neal, like others in the business, charges $30 for every house and every person looking for a roommate match. She estimates she has had 2,000 clients this year. Her overhead is small. "I don't even advertise much anymore," she said. "I rely on word of mouth."
The success of some roommate matching services has prompted many to enter the business, only to drop out again. A check of Washington Post advertising shows almost two dozen services that have come and gone in 10 years.
"I've watched trends come into being and I love it," Neal said. "Right now Capitol Hill is just about to pop as a popular place to live. I watched as coed houses became more and more acceptable around 1976. A few years ago it was vegetarianism, then it was smoking."
Now, says Neal, politics is becoming touchy.
"People used to not care if they lived with a Republican or Democrat," she said. "But a lot of people who work on Capitol Hill live in houses and they care. And when times are tough it's not a good idea to put a staunch supporter of the administration in with someone who just was riffed."
Thus, most "Roommate Wanted" notices in Capitol Hill office buildings list the party affiliation of the house along with rent and location.
Area bulletin boards are plastered with roommate notices: last Sunday there were 382 classified ads under the heading "Apartments, Rooms, Houses to Share."
"I remember when that column was a half column long, once a week," Pettif said. "You had to really seek people out."
But recently, 15 people in one weekend asked to move into a room he had open.
"I think that says a lot about the state of our economy and changes in our life styles," he said.